Mr. Popular

Mention the name Thaddeus McCotter to most any member of the Michigan congressional delegation — or most any member of Congress, for that matter — and the collective response is an amused smile.
McCotter, a third-term Republican, looks dubious about any affection cast his way. “In this town, that’s not a good thing,” he deadpanned last week between votes on the House floor.

Tall, thin and balding, McCotter, with his intense gaze, floats beneath the radar. 

Late last year he was elected chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, a position he won in a 132-63 vote against Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.) largely because colleagues preferred his eccentric, self-deprecating personality. McCotter isn’t the loudest member in any room, and rarely calls attention to himself. It seems that he’d rather be left alone, although those close to him insist this is a misconception. 

Talking about himself proves to be troublesome. He’s a low talker and one must listen up to catch the details he cares to share. McCotter looks tortured as he responds to questions about his likes and dislikes, maintaining that what he enjoys holds no importance to him or to anyone.

“I don’t have much of an ego,” he says. “Worrying about oneself is detrimental. My job is to think about my constituents. It’s a waste of time to think about me. I’m not a French existentialist. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about those esoteric questions.”

Oh, how about just one: What would McCotter be if he weren’t a politician? “I’d trade jobs with [Bruce] Springsteen,” says McCotter, lead guitarist in the House band, the Second Amendments. “But it would be bad for the country. God put us where he wanted us and it seems to make sense.”

Musical influences include the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and The Who. “You grew up in the ’70s, you weren’t going to listen to Gary Glitter,” he says. “You had to listen to something.”

Asked if politics suits him, he replies, “No, I don’t know that it suits anyone. Does any normal person enjoy being hated by strangers?”

Relax and put your feet up. Getting to know McCotter may take awhile, but it is well worth the time.
One must, for starters, see him through the eyes of a largely disorganized fan club. The congressman draws fans in droves. However, he only attracted 54 percent of the vote last year against nominal opposition. Based on that performance, Democrats are targeting his seat this election cycle.

Like a pied piper, McCotter leads subtly, putting lawmakers at ease because, they say, they can say anything in his presence.

And they do.

On a recent afternoon in the Speaker’s Lobby, a Western GOP lawmaker in a pink tie approaches McCotter’s usual spot in the right-hand corner where sunshine streams in. The lawmaker tells McCotter he is wearing his “Mark Foley” tie. He tells McCotter he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the tie back home, a state not known for, well, being friendly to those who wear pink ties.

McCotter responds by making fun of his colleague’s shoes.

McCotter says he isn’t angry about the recent GOP downfall. “Why? It’s done,” he says. “We had become a dysfunctional political organization. The job is to become functional again.

“Twelve years of governing wore out the revolutionaries of 1994,” he says, referring to the Republican Revolution sparked by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Scandal comes easy in Washington. “The Foley instance was not a singular instance,” he says. “We may not be done with that on either side. It’s unfortunate, but there are always going to be some lawmakers who can’t withstand the temptations of Washington. Here, the temptations are greater than other places.”

How not to indulge?

“I just don’t do it,” he says. “I distrust the pageantry of the place because it is an impediment to getting work done. Value character more than celebrity. It’s generally a good rule of thumb.”

On Capitol Hill, where lawmakers enjoy proprietary access to a bevy of adoring aides, where tourists and door attendants alike offer salutational greetings such as “Good morning, Congressman,” and “Excuse me, Mr. Chairman,” there is McCotter, who doesn’t seem to fit in with his surroundings.
The effect of McCotter’s self-deprecating, dry sense of humor and intensity of thought is that it’s hard to decipher when the lawmaker is being funny or serious. “Oh, they know,” he says when asked if colleagues know when he means business. “There isn’t much to laugh about these days.”

McCotter’s office in the Cannon Building is a shrine to both the Beatles and all things Irish. Along with homemade Irish road signs, a large portrait of John Lennon hangs front and center over an old wooden desk that belonged to his maternal grandfather. He has since refurbished the desk, but says it’s so old that the chair once shredded the bottoms of his trousers.

A Celtic cross he made himself perches above his door. To him, its purpose is obvious: “Just in case I have a heart attack and I need last rites,” he says.

Death is on McCotter’s mind more than that of the average person in his 40s. Asked last year how he would communicate with his congressional colleagues during a terrorist attack, McCotter said that as an Irish Catholic, he assumes he’ll be one of the ones who doesn’t survive.

Yet health isn’t a major concern. It’s the dead of winter, McCotter’s window is open wide, there are no lights on and cigarette smoke fills the room. McCotter is particular about light — he prefers sunlight to halogen as it hurts his eyes — and he doesn’t mind darkness. He has been known to relax in his office by strumming away on his guitar in the dark.

McCotter has also been known to shut his door and make aides slide documents underneath when he prefers to be alone.

“He communicates on a higher level, which made communication hard for him and his staff,” says a former aide who still considers the lawmaker a good friend. The congressman, the ex-aide says, would grow frustrated trying to convey his ideas to aides who struggled to understand and implement them.

While touring with the Second Amendments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, the band came under mortar attack. McCotter says he wasn’t scared. “You see what the troops do,” he says. “You sit in the bunker and wonder when you’ll get to smoke again.”

Speaking about fear, he adds, “What good would it do? I hate to tell you this, [but] everybody dies no matter how many vitamins you take, no matter how many smoke-free restaurants you go to.” Still, McCotter wishes he didn’t smoke. “God knows what vice I’d pick up,” he says, wondering what would happen if he quit. “Maybe I’d start biting my nails.” He says he needs his calluses to play his guitar, insinuating that he might bite those, too.

“I knew it would take a little while for the members to catch on to McCotter,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who worked alongside him in the Michigan Senate, where McCotter served for four years. “He’s off in his own path. He is very, very eccentric. He has his own unique personality — ’course, it helps if you’re a Beatles fan.”

And one by one his colleagues tell me the same thing: “He’s always the smartest guy in the room,” says Miller.

House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), explains, “He’s probably our most cerebral member.”

Still, his first term in Congress was rocky. McCotter waded through four different chiefs of staff, many of whom left for reasons that one former aide says were “shrouded in secrecy.” And McCotter’s quirkiness sometimes strikes people as just plain strange, not eccentric. In the Michigan state Senate, for example, he spoke as his poetry-composing alter ego, Powell B. Knighton, and quoted himself on the floor of the legislature under the pseudonym.

In addition, a former staffer says, he rarely eats solid food and subsists on Mountain Dew and cigarettes. “They love him because he’s eclectic and interesting,” says the aide, explaining that McCotter used to hang out with a group of staffers and members in the state legislature to talk and smoke — they called themselves The Pipe Fitters.

Still, few were surprised when McCotter was elected to leadership. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), as amused as anyone asked about McCotter, recounts playing baseball with the congressman — McCotter stood out in center field, smoking, when he was supposed to be shagging fly balls.
But Stupak points out an interesting facet to McCotter. Unlike some of the House’s previous eccentrics, Stupak insists McCotter is “comfortable with who he is no matter what the heck people think. There are a number of people around here who are not comfortable with themselves.”

And some are pleased to have someone else stand out in the crowd.

“As Republicans, we kind of have the same-old, same-old in a lot of our guys,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). “He’s off the wall in a positive way.”

There aren’t direct paths to understanding why McCotter is so off the beaten path. Born and raised in Detroit, McCotter has one younger brother who is “completely bald.” He says it again for emphasis: “COMPLETELY BALD.” McCotter, who himself began going bald early, attended public school. His mother was the first woman to be City Council president. His father died when he was a teenager. “Buried him on my 14th birthday,” he says unemotionally.

“We grew up in a family where you didn’t brag about what you do. You let your deeds speak for themselves. No handouts.”

Grades weren’t a concern. “I did all right,” he says of high school. “I graduated.” He went on to the University of Detroit to study political science and graduated summa cum laude with honors. Law school was a place to figure out what to do with his life. “I’m a lawyer, but I don’t know that it helped,” he says.

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), whose district borders McCotter’s, said he isn’t close with McCotter, but finds him “refreshing.” He notes that his younger colleague is on an “upward trajectory,” and hopes his independent streak won’t be destroyed by his position in the Republican leadership.

Those who work closely with McCotter say his humor only adds to his appeal. “Like all smart people do, he uses humor to make his point, very cleverly,” says Putnam.

Still, when colleagues are asked about McCotter, they have to consciously try not to make fun of him — meaning his humor is part attribute and part pitfall. “He’s a bright guy and uses big words,” says Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). “I always like when he uses big words because I have to use my dictionary.”

Simpson also fancies McCotter’s style of dress. “He is the GQ gentleman of the House,” he says. “His pocket silk always matches his tie. I think he starts getting dressed very early in the morning, like 3 or 4.”